In conversation with Professor Bernie Morley and Professor Nathan Mayne.

 

The Future Leaders Fellows Development Network’s award-winning Leadership Mentoring Programme brings together established mentors with mentees in an interdisciplinary exchange of knowledge. In this blog, we share a conversation between mentor Bernie Morley, a former Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Bath, and mentee Professor Nathan Mayne, an FLF specialising in climate studies of exoplanets at the University of Exeter. This discussion reveals the significant benefits of interdisciplinary mentoring and emphasises the importance of leadership development in the research world.

Seeking a Mentor

Nathan sought a mentor when he realised, he had reached a point in his research where he was comfortable but desired an understanding of broader academia. He wanted to contribute beyond his research group and needed someone who could guide him in the right direction.

“The challenges, which sort of spurred me to find a mentor, were really about direction. I was getting to a point where I felt happy and comfortable with the way that my research group were going. I can always do better, of course, the research itself was exciting and interesting and progressing well. But I wanted to understand ways that I might contribute in a wider sense to academia or the kind of higher education structure”.

This led Nathan to seek a mentor from the Leadership Mentoring Programme. And, after sharing these challenges, he was matched with mentor Bernie Morley.

 

Needs of Mentees

As a mentor, Bernie Morley had faced mentees with different needs. Some, like Nathan, sought guidance to progress further in their careers, while others needed more fundamental guidance on university processes. This emphasises the importance of matching mentors and mentees based on their specific needs and ensuring a productive mentorship.

Bernie highlights the effectiveness of the program’s matching process, which aligns mentors and mentees based on shared values and goals. The success of mentorship hinges on the initial pairing and the subsequent development of a strong and enjoyable relationship. This process encourages meaningful conversations that contribute to the growth of both mentors and mentees.

“The Network has done a brilliant job at matching. We were able to talk about things that that mattered to us, and they were similar things. Yes, there was the career, but there was also family, and where we live. That’s a factor in that broader picture. You then get to know each other, talk to each other a little bit realise that you can get on and from there on you can start to talk about what’s important, and pursue more with trust and authenticity.”

 

Interdisciplinary Mentor Matching

Nathan emphasises the fresh perspectives that mentors from different disciplines bring to the table. Their insights into the workings of various universities offer mentees a more comprehensive view of the academic landscape. Interdisciplinary mentorship encourages mentees to explore new avenues and think beyond their current work environment.

“Speaking to someone that had that insight not only of a different research field, but also the way different universities work and at different levels was really useful to me, not only to expose things I didn’t know, but to ask me questions that I hadn’t even thought about yet.”

Bernie highlights that in practice, interdisciplinary discussions often transcend the boundaries of their respective disciplines. Their conversations extended into broader university management, providing mentees with a deeper understanding of academic institutions. Interdisciplinary mentorship encourages mentees to view the academic world holistically.

“I was fascinated by the research that Nathan has done. It’s amazing how successful he’s been at that level of research. But a lot of the questions I had with my mentees were more around how universities work. And the discipline then is only marginal to that conversation. I mean, yes, there are differences in certain in certain disciplines, but because of my role at Bath, it had been across all the disciplines. So it was more about management, about potential, the difference between research type roles and more management roles.”

 

Leadership Development

 Nathan’s leadership development was strongly influenced by mentorship. The primary impact was on his leadership and direction. He focused on his goals and the direction of his career. He mentions that, as academics, the constant pursuit of immediate goals often overshadows consideration of the bigger picture. Mentorship enabled him to question the path he was on, making him more open to new ideas and ways of doing things.

“For me, I really wanted to understand and analyse what I was trying to achieve. Where was I trying to go? I think sometimes in academia, maybe in many careers, you focus on achieving the next goal and the next goal. And we don’t allow ourselves much time to think about where’s this road taking me? Do I like that place?”

 

Interdisciplinary Leadership

Nathan discusses the significance of interdisciplinary leadership, which involves understanding various disciplines and working together to address complex problems. He highlights that solving major issues in academia and the world often requires collaboration across different fields.

“As you progress through along certain pathways, you’re going to be in positions where you need to make decisions about people from all sorts of disciplines and backgrounds, and you need to be able to understand that bigger picture and understand differences between fields.

 The second thing in terms of interdisciplinary work in general is it’s great to get new perspectives. And I think the argument about diverse viewpoints in all senses of the word has been shown to increase innovation. But I think it does come with a caveat and that’s that patience is required. So, interdisciplinary work is not about the abandonment of disciplines. You still need strong discipline experts, but it’s about connecting those people so that you can solve bigger, bigger problems. And to me, that’s what I get a buzz out of in research.”

Bernie adds, “From the point of view of moving higher up the university, into management, it’s not so much interdisciplinary, it’s you’ve got to understand the differences in disciplines, and I think that’s hugely important.”

 

Becoming a Mentor

Bernie’s motivation for being a mentor stems from a desire to give back to the academic community. He had experienced the benefits of strong mentors during his career and saw mentorship as a way to support others in achieving their goals. His approach aligns with the fundamental concept of education – helping others grow and succeed.

I was very lucky coming up through my career because I had sort of a very strong scientific mentor. And then I had two senior members when I was at Imperial who were very helpful, taking the next step in leadership and seeing the bigger picture. And so, it’s a chance to me to give back. It’s what education is all about really, isn’t it? It’s why we teach undergraduates; it’s why we teach postgraduates. And to some extent, if I can support members of staff to achieve the right, the right balance, the right things, then I feel I’m doing something helpful.”

 

Getting the most out of Mentoring

Nathan emphasises the importance of a well-matched mentor-mentee relationship. He suggests that potential mentees should be clear about their goals and what they seek from mentorship. Authenticity is key, as open and honest discussions foster meaningful mentorship. The key takeaway is that mentorship is a two-way relationship that requires both parties to be themselves and work towards common goals.

“I think mentoring is so valuable, but I think it hinges on the match. And I think that’s what was so great about this system. I can approach people that I’ve met, and I might get lucky, and someone I’ve met turns out to be a great mentor or we can have a really good interaction.

 But being quite clear and thinking about what it is you want to achieve from that so that you can connect with the correct person, I guess. And then I think from there it’s authenticity and I think that’s both from the mentor mentee just being yourself. I was really impressed with how the kind of things I was looking to talk about aligned with Bernie’s character and an experience. So, it was great for me that way.”

 

Reflections

Bernie reflects on the enjoyment he derives from being a mentor. It’s not just about giving back; it’s about building enjoyable connections with interesting people and engaging in conversations that can be more fulfilling than other academic commitments.

“I feel that this kind of thing is an investment in the people within this system that links us all- the funders, the researchers, everyone. So, for me, it’s about trying to plant a tree and sort of make things better in the future. And the best way to do that is to connect with people that you might not normally have connected with.”

Nathan adds that mentorship can help academics who might struggle with interpersonal skills to improve their ability to work with others, which is essential for success in academia. Mentorship fosters meaningful conversations that support mental health by encouraging individuals to talk openly about their concerns and challenges.

“I totally agree with Bernie. It’s basically because you get to meet interesting people and have fun discussions. If you want to get on a little bit and support others more, you need to work with people. For mental health, too, a great way to deal with things is to talk to people, not keep it bottled up. So, if this helps people have conversations, then that’s a major plus in my book.”

This mentor-mentee conversation highlights the significance of mentorship in academia. It emphasises the importance of well-matched relationships, authentic discussions, and the interdisciplinary nature of academic growth. Mentorship not only benefits individuals but also contributes to the collective success of the academic community.

 

Image credit – Andy Catlin, 2023

By Dr Kay Guccione, Mentoring Lead, and Head of Research Culture and Researcher Development at the University of Glasgow.

 

There are many models of structured conversation being used in the coaching and mentoring disciplines – perhaps you have a favourite you like to use? A conversational model offers mentors a handy process to follow that allows us to open up discussion and exploration, and to keep the conversation flowing towards an outcome identified by our mentee. It helps us to frame the stages of the conversation and so to track progress, building progressive momentum towards change. And it allows us to go through a complete and thorough cycle of investigation, reflection and planning, to prevent assumptions or short-circuits in thinking, creeping into our decision making.

If we are following established guidance for mentors, we know it makes for effective practice to begin a new partnership with an expectation setting exercise. We go through a ‘contracting’ process (or an agreement-making stage) so that we create a clear understanding about the purpose, aims, style and boundaries of our mentoring partnership. This has the dual purpose of setting us off with shared expectations, and of creating openness and trust between mentor and mentee. But how we manage this conversation can often be less well designed than the mentoring conversations that follow.

A good Mentoring Agreement form or template can help to structure the conversation, making sure that the new partners work through a checklist of points for discussion and agreement. Such a document can also provide a handy way of externalising or ‘de-personalising’ the contract between you. What I mean by this is that, if, down the line, we find the partnership is not working optimally, we can re-visit what is written, and change the agreement. It is the agreement that isn’t working well, not the mentor or the mentee.

However, for some people and partnerships, a mentoring contract form or template document might not be the right approach. In more informal partnerships, or one-off mentoring or mentoring-style conversations, completing paperwork together may feel like overkill. In this case, how can we quickly and effectively make sure that we make the best use of the time we have together?

The ‘Ideas, Concerns and Expectations’ (ICE) model (derived from healthcare approaches designed to elicit the patient’s agenda) outlines a simple structured conversational model to explore how a person currently perceives their situation, what they are worried about, and what they are expecting from the consultation. A 2009 study, showed how going through this process in a General Practice setting, changed the course of action to follow. More recent studies in the clinical setting have documented how increased satisfaction can be associated with the ICE model. Borrowing from this we can quickly reach an understanding of what our mentee most needs from us. Asking about a mentee’s Ideas, Concerns and Expectations at the earliest stages of mentoring, allows exploration and management of the mentee’s agenda, and importantly helps the mentor acknowledge their own ICE for the conversation.

Key to all good conversations that use a structured model, is tailoring the language to your own preferences and speaking patterns so that the discussions flow naturally. For example, I myself might ask:

  • Ideas: What’s on your mind today? Or, how would you like to use this mentoring conversation?
  • Concerns: Is there any topic you want to keep out of our conversation? Or, is there anything I could do or say that would make this less useful to you?
  • Expectations: What would make this conversation of value to you? Or, what would you like to walk away having achieved today?

Using this as a guide to develop your own questions, even during a brief mentoring or coaching conversation, allows for time for you to ask about the mentee’s context and objectives. I hope this will be useful to you in your practice.

By Clare Barrie, Communications Officer, Future Leaders Fellows Development Network

In the realm of academic and professional growth, collaboration often serves as a catalyst for innovation. A great example of this principle is the recent collaboration between the Horizons Institute at the University of Leeds and the Future Leaders Fellows Development Network. Lauren Wray, Institute Manager at the Horizons Institute, and Charlotte Bonner-Evans, Mentoring Manager at the Future Leaders Fellows Development Network, worked together to develop a new interdisciplinary mentoring programme for the Horizons Institute.

 

The programme was introduced in June by an orientation workshop delivered by Charlotte Bonner-Evans. The bespoke one-to-one international mentoring scheme, conceived by Lauren Wray, materialised as a result of the collaborative efforts between Horizons and the Future Leaders Fellows Development Network. The collaboration came to life through Samantha Aspinall, Head of Interdisciplinary Research Development at Horizons Institute and Specialist in Interdisciplinary Research at FLFDN. Samantha connected Charlotte and Lauren, enabling the exchange of best practices and insights that have powered the Network’s Leadership Mentoring Programme over the last few years.

 

Enhancing diversity through shared practice

Charlotte said of their approach to interdisciplinary matchups, “Often researchers find themselves paired with other researchers from their field, missing the chance to interact with those beyond their specialty. At the Network, our emphasis is on cross-disciplinary interactions, including those outside of research. Our success in this approach led us to share our learning with Horizons and nurture interdisciplinary mentoring not only across the UK but on a global scale.”

Professor Ben Lamptey, Visiting Professor at the University of Leeds, shared his experience being matched as mentor across disciplines.

“As a Physical Scientist (Meteorologist), I was surprised to be asked to mentor a Social Scientist. However, after engaging with my mentee for the first time, I realised the matching was excellent. I thought these people (the Horizon Institute) must be doing a good job by just studying the backgrounds of two people from different disciplines and realising the two will make an excellent match.”

 

A mutual evolution

Lauren elaborated on the collaborative process, “Developing this mentoring programme was a first for me and involved a process of iterative discussions with Charlotte. Her insights helped shape the programme as we collectively designed and refined its process. The collaboration was a reflective journey that guided the programme’s evolution.”

The collaboration wasn’t just a one-way enrichment. As Charlotte emphasises, “Supporting an internationally oriented programme was exciting for us. Through this sharing of best practice, we were on a learning journey together. By understanding each other’s goals, objectives and experiences, both of our programmes can grow to provide a great mentoring experience for both mentors and mentees.”

 

Empowering across borders

The Horizons Institute’s global connections, including affiliations with institutions in Africa, yielded a network that crosses geographic boundaries. Lauren explained, “Our programme extends its reach to academics, policy specialists, and industry professionals in Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, and beyond. This diverse network of expertise has facilitated enriching exchanges between these international mentors and academics at the University of Leeds.”

 

Changing research culture

Both Horizons and the Future Leaders Fellows Development Network focus on developing programmes and initiatives that best serve their people, and work to positively move research culture forward. Lauren added that changing research culture for the better can often be about taking risks, something the Horizons Institute embraces.

“There’s something about having a mentor partnership that on paper seems as though it might not work, as Ben highlighted, that will hopefully build the confidence  of mentoring pairs to try ideas and to continue establishing partnerships that are out of their comfort zone even if there’s a risk of failure. So, by matching an atmospheric scientist with a social scientist, and them finding common ground, they can draw from this and grow through challenges with a different perspective.”

Charlotte affirms this approach, “It is important to us as a Network to share our experience in developing an interdisciplinary mentoring programme that contributes to improving research culture. Having a programme conceptualised by an expert in the field, Dr Kay Guccione, and developed by listening to the needs of UKRI researchers and innovators, we have been given the opportunity by UKRI in an open access world to share our learning and support the positive evolution of research culture as part of the Network’s legacy.”

 

Shared ethical foundations

Collaborative work allowed both Charlotte and Lauren to weave ethical considerations and the mentoring code of conduct into the fabric of the programme. This approach ensured that EDI considerations were at the forefront when embedding support for mentors and mentees. By embracing diverse values and cultural nuances, they navigated a path toward enhancing the broader research mentoring landscape.

 

Paving the path forward

With a shared commitment to fostering positive mentor-mentee experiences, both programmes aim to spark a culture shift. Charlotte explains, “Ultimately, our goal is to enable culture change and to promote a positive experience for the mentees with their mentors. They go on to be brilliant mentors themselves and have successful careers.”

 This first round of the Horizons Institute’s mentoring programme runs for 12 months and will continue to develop with the learnings from this pilot year.

 

Future Leaders Fellows Development Network

The Future Leaders Fellows Development Network Leadership Mentoring Programme was awarded EMCC Global Mentoring Award 2022, which recognised the programme’s innovative and needs-focused approach and the flexibility in of the mentoring relationships.

 

Horizons Institute

Horizons is an interdisciplinary research institute based at the University of Leeds. Their international connections, including three institutions in Africa, develop interdisciplinary research that can address global challenges. Find out more on Horizons Institute’s website.

 

Read Charlotte Bonner-Evans’ article, ‘Interdisciplinary Mentoring for Researchers: Making equal space for similarities and differences,’ on The Auditorium, a research culture and researcher development blog.

Image credit – iStock, Meeko Media, 2023

By Kay Guccione and Charlotte Bonner-Evans, the Future Leaders Fellows Development Network Mentoring Team.


For National Mentoring Day 2022, we wanted to share a bit about how we ensure such a high success rate for our mentoring partnerships. One of the pillars of the Future Leaders Fellows Leadership Mentoring Programme is that we make a bespoke match for each mentee, and mentor. This is because we believe that at the heart of a successful mentoring partnership is a good matching process and we don’t compromise on our commitment to this. We know that a well-designed matching process can add several positives to the mentoring partnership:

For example, for our busy mentees there are many unknowns that can provide barriers to getting started. Simply not knowing who is available as a mentor, and considering what kind of person might suit them best, may cause them to put off getting started. Knowing what to say and how to make an approach, can create a further obstacle. A matching process takes the anxiousness out of contacting a mentor and removes the possibility of being disappointed or rejected.

For our mentors who volunteer their time, we want to make sure that they are supported to work with a person with whom they can build a good working relationship, and to whom they will feel useful. We also need to make sure that no mentor is overloaded with requests, and that no mentor goes unmatched for more than one programme cycle.

And for both, matching is the basis of building trust and alliance in the partnership. A people-centred matching process can ensure alignment of each participant’s own objectives with the overarching programme objectives, reassure both parties about what’s expected of them (and what isn’t), communicate why they have been matched together, ease the first introductory meeting, and support the relationship to get off to a great start.

We use a Matching Profile Form to collect matching information. This form is designed to:

  • Find out more about each participant as a person. This includes what they enjoy, what they value and how they experience their work, as well as what they specialise in and their qualifications and achievement.
  • Get information about who participants would like to meet, and what kind of person would help them to be at their best.
  • Support mentees to articulate their specific goals for the programme, and to prioritise these.
  • Keep any potentially personal or sensitive matching information relatively confidential (compared to, say, publishing all mentor profiles online and allowing mentees to browse and pick), which allows them to be more open in what they include on their Matching Profile form.

The form also acts as a means of introduction. Once a pair is matched, they can read each other’s profile as a way of getting to know a bit about each other before their first meeting.

Once the forms are all in, the mentoring programme team spend time reading, re-reading, discussing, and note taking trying to get to know each person better through their profile. If we need more information, or if we can’t understand what they want to prioritise from their form, we go back to them for a discussion. Making a hand-picked match for every mentee takes up quite some time and is probably the most time-intensive task we engage with as mentoring programme leaders. But it works well for us, as we have built time into the programme cycle to consider each mentee as an individual.

However, this method gives participants reduced control over their match (compared to picking their own mentor from a list) and so it pays to build relationships with them through the Welcome Workshops we run prior to Profile-making, that demonstrate how it works, that we can be trusted with the information they disclose, and that we will select a match for them with their best interests in mind.

A final bonus of this matching system is that if the pairs meet and for any reason decide that they are not well matched, they can come back to us for a re-match without the awkwardness of having to admit to each other that they may have made the wrong selection. Our programme has contingencies built in for re-matching (though this rarely happens) and we work closely with the pairs so that they feel they can come back to us with queries or concerns about how or why they have been paired.

We generally advise that ‘no match is better than a bad match’ to avoid wasting participants’ time, and if we don’t have the right mentor at first, we will recruit one, or match them as a priority in the next cycle. An example of this, and more about the value of a good match can be read about in this blog post, in which mentor and mentee discuss their experiences.

Read more about our Leadership Mentoring Programme 

By Professor Claire Gorrara and Dr Sarah Inskip

The Future Leaders Fellows Development Network’s Leadership Mentoring Programme has a unique and considered matching process. Fellows are hand-matched with expert mentors through a ‘people-match’ approach. This allows Mentors to support their Fellow’s priorities and aspirations. This process facilitates a partnership that is built upon individual experiences, preferences, and values.

This is evident in the successful match-up of Professor Claire Gorrara and Dr Sarah Inskip.

Mentor Claire Gorrara is Dean of Research and Innovation for the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences and Professor of French Studies at Cardiff University. Her research encompasses curriculum reform and the teaching of modern languages in schools in Wales. She has worked with mentoring programmes in schools since 2015 as part of her research to support the uptake of modern languages at GCSE level. She is passionate about the power of mentoring to support personal growth and development.

Dr Sarah Inskip is an Osteoarchaeologist and UKRI Future Leaders Fellow in the School of Archaeology and Ancient History at the University of Leicester. Her research focuses on revealing the impact of tobacco on the health of Western Europeans from 1600-1900. Dr Inskip integrates skeletal evidence obtained from archaeological human skeletal remains with historical and modern health narratives. By utilising modern research techniques she is able to reveal new insights into archaeological questions.

Both Sarah and Claire commented it would be unlikely there would have been such an effective mentoring relationship if the process took into account only a ‘skills-match’ as their research spans such different fields. This personal matching aspect is a core value behind the Network’s matching process and enables relationships that help Fellows to develop in areas that matter to them.

In fact, when Sarah applied to the programme she was met with a form that allowed her to provide her preferences. “I was looking for a mentor with a similar background and set of values. I wanted to get support from a female academic who had faced similar hurdles and overcame confidence problems.”

The Network’s Mentoring Manager, Charlotte Bonner-Evans, is responsible for matching pairs and shared some of the behind the scenes processes of creating a successful match.

“We take very seriously the position of trust we have when matching mentees and mentors, combining objectives, experience, and trusted shared information, to hand-match with the best interests in mind of both mentees and mentors. Each match is made and reflected upon before released to the pairs. With this match, I was able to return to Dr Inskip to narrow down what she was looking for in a match, and instead of matching straight away, and potentially mismatching, she kindly agreed to wait, as I was aware that Professor Gorrara had registered for the next Leadership Mentoring orientation session and had presented ideal match information.”

Sarah let Charlotte know that she was looking for someone to support her with schools engagement. She wanted to effectively communicate her findings on tobacco’s long-term impact on health to pupils. Based on the information she provided, Charlotte knew Claire would be the perfect mentor for Sarah and offered the match. On the pair-up, Claire said that “It worked massively being from the same background, we clicked on a personal level as women academics and we both identified as coming from working-class families. Although we had little similarity in our research fields, we both had similar personal trajectories and ambitions. It’s a great scheme allowing people to be matched on values.”

Sarah and Claire also set aside time to meet in person to discuss each other’s academic outlooks and experiences. Sarah described their professional relationship developing through the programme:

“We quickly realised we had overlapping experiences and that we both wanted to make an impact on young people and their life choices. It’s hugely beneficial that she knows is where I’m coming from. It’s incredibly helpful having someone impartial to my institution, who is more senior and I feel comfortable being able to talk to her about anything.”

Professor Gorrara aded that, “Working together is mutually beneficial, it gives us both a fresh perspective, coming from such different fields. There are huge benefits in knowledge and experience exchange and it brings the possibility of collaborating on future projects.”

Claire explained the impact mentoring programmes had on the uptake of modern languages within schools and Sarah found this hugely beneficial. Claire connected Sarah to Lucy Jenkins, Programme Manager of the MFL (Modern Foreign Language) Mentoring Project, with whom she works. Lucy was able to share insights about sustaining long-term relationships with schools.

The impact of this match-up can be felt in Sarah’s daily work, “I’m a lot more confident in trying to do much larger things. I now have a growing network to check in with as I navigate this new area. I’m incredibly grateful to Claire for sharing her experiences.”

Claire also discussed the benefit of the partnership on her own work, “It’s so useful to connect with academics out with humanities who have a different perspective. So I’ve been able to learn from Sarah’s challenges. In my career, I’ve helped support academics on applications to become Future Leader Fellows, but seeing and supporting a live project has given great insight into how Fellow’s carry out their work.”

In the future Claire and Sarah, along with Lucy, will continue to work together to maximise Sarah’s school engagement work. They will continue to work together as colleagues who want to make a difference. Professor Gorrara said, “The Network does truly provide a people-matching mentoring programme. I would recommend it to both mentors and Fellows.”

Explore our Leadership Mentoring Programme and read more about the matching process in our blog from Kay Guccione and Charlotte Bonner-Evans.

By Charlotte Bonner-Evans, Mentoring Partnership Manager

Four people of mixed races and gender sat talking animatedly around a table

Researchers and innovators face many distinct challenges, stemming from research projects, managing interdisciplinary teams, working with people across different organisational cultures, not to mention how busy everyone is, and the imposter syndrome that convinces us everyone knows more than we do! These themes are commonly identified by members of this network as shared challenges. Peers are uniquely able to relate to our context and experiences, offering understanding, support, and advice as a result. This is why we have designed a bespoke peer-led programme for the Future Leaders Fellows Development Network.

Peer group mentoring allows you to share your thoughts, experiences, and to collaborate with your peers. Through working with your peers, you can not only realise the value of discussing issues with those who are facing similar experiences, but also how much you can support others too. Peer group mentoring is based on the evidence that the value of mentoring is reciprocal, allowing space for multiple ideas and views to be shared, discussing problems, and reflecting on experiences (Heikkinen et al., 2020).

Knowing that peer support is available and that you are not in competition with others but instead working towards shared goals, helps to develop ‘meaningful interactions and a sense of relatedness’ (Baik et al., 2017 p. 18). This is an important networking intention in the wake of increased feelings of isolation and loneliness as a result of the pandemic. Moreover, the expectation for interdisciplinary working is increasing for researchers and innovators and finding common ground across disciplines is important.

In a blog for this Network, ‘Building a repertoire beyond advice’, our Mentoring Consultant, Dr Kay Guccione, emphasised that context and experience are important in how we resolve problems and plan our development. Working in peer mentoring groups allows you to work on shared challenges and experiences with others who are working in similar contexts.

The benefits of peer group mentoring include:

  • a space for sharing and reflection
  • problem solving
  • empowerment to take action
  • strengthening of professional identity
  • motivation and well-being.

Peer Perspectives, the Network’s peer group mentoring offer facilitated by subject area experts, is all about sharing personal experiences, solving genuine problems and answering questions alongside your peers, and constructing communities of Fellows engaged in common interests. In an environment with your peers and an expert facilitator in the subject, opportunities for development of yourself and others are rich.

Peer Perspectives takes place in just two meetings. In the first you set yourself some small actions and support your peers to do the same. Planning the second meeting date provides a timeframe for you to take action, as you meet again to review progress and report back on how it went.

Share experiences and challenges with your peers, you will find that they understand and have experienced something similar! (Huizing R.L., 2012)

Register to take part in Peer Perspectives

By Dr Kay Guccione, Head of Researcher Development at the University of Glasgow, and FLF+ Network Mentoring Specialist.

This blog is part of a series written for our FLF+ Network Leadership Mentors, and is provided open access so that it can be used by anyone who is interested in improving their feedback skills. I draw my examples in this post from across the different mentoring programmes I’ve worked on, but you will recognise that these ideas also apply to personal tutoring, doctoral and masters supervision too, as well as to line management.

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Is your feedback missing the mark? 

I have been selected as ‘Reviewer of the Year’ by a handful of journals, for giving developmental feedback, and it’s fair to say I’m very proud of this recognition. I am pleased to be recognised in this way, because giving feedback that helps people develop is a core competency of being a good teacher, academic, and mentor. Being a good mentor, and helping others to engage with mentoring techniques, is something I’ve been an advocate for in my professional life.

Disclosure though, I cribbed my feedback skills from a tutor on my Coaching and Mentoring MAEd – the superbly skilled Rose Schofield, a grand dame of feedback. Part of my learning with Rose over the years, as her student, and then as her colleague teaching on the MA Educational Leadership, was to understand what it was about her feedback that motivated people to want to do better. Rose’s feedback to me made me want to listen, think, and to evaluate and improve my work, all without her having to ever point out to me ‘what could be better’. She helped me to see for myself that improvement of my thinking, writing, and career choices was possible. She did this by asking me questions, and by choosing those questions carefully, selecting ones that I myself wanted to know the answer to.

I run regular workshops now, for lots of different institutions and businesses that support staff to add mentoring and coaching techniques to their teaching, management, supervision and leadership repertoires. One discussion I always like to let run, and to help people explore, is how to give feedback that the recipients will actually hear, analyse, and respond to.

How to give feedback that the recipients will actually hear, analyse, and respond to

Giving feedback that acknowledges areas for improvement, and that doesn’t cause the receiver to feel ashamed, close down, clam up, be upset, get defensive or start an argument, is difficult. This is because effective feedback is dependent on more than the structure or mechanism you apply — the relationship between giver and receiver really matters. Additionally, their relationship to the work, career, behaviour or decision you are critiquing, will impact on how the feedback is heard and processed.

There is widespread usage now of a formulaic ‘sandwich’ approach to giving balanced feedback (Whitman & Schwenk, 1974) that goes: ‘good bit, critical bit, good bit’. This formula for feedback isn’t as effective as we are led to believe and there are a number of criticisms of it available in the literature. At the time of publishing, it did a great service to medical education, but has become outdated for use today.

The sandwich method has lost effectiveness because the recipient (a) knows what you’re doing, and so (b) dismisses the positive bits and still feels defensive about the negative bits. This is because using a formula can seem generic, disingenuous, or inauthentic, and we all know of the temptation to write the criticism first and then add in positive ‘filler’ to cushion the blow.

This method can also be dismissed, and even provoke anger, in cases where the critical part is so out of line with how the recipient sees themself, that they feel there must be some mistake. Haven’t we all received feedback that jars with our self-image and thought, ‘You clearly don’t even know me or my work!’

So, if it’s not ‘balance’ that makes feedback effective – what is it?

Below are some concepts related to the giving of feedback for you to think about. This isn’t a ‘how to’ model because there’s not one right way that works every time. Not all ideas will be relevant to every situation, or every person. All that’s required of you, is for you to think about these ideas, think about your feedback, and notice where these suggestions could or wouldn’t work for you.

Consider as you read each idea below, that as mentors we intend to stay with the idea of ‘person centred development’. The key to giving feedback that supports thinking, learning, and motivates action, is to make the feedback about the recipient. Not generic, and not about ourselves.

To deliver this personalised feedback in a way that does not provide too big a challenge to the recipient’s own view of themselves we must:

Understand that relationship, rapport and alliance matters.  Most of us are more inclined to hear a difficult truth from a trusted colleague, one whom we feel has got to know us and who has got our back, than we are to hear it from someone we already feel tense around, or whose opinion we don’t particularly value.

Play the ‘long game’ of feedback. Does it matter more to ‘be right, right now’ or is it more important to build a productive partnership that will weather difficulties, and where honest conversations can happen? Ask yourself: do you really need to pick them up on that typo? Must you leap in and correct them? Are you helping them to learn or are you ‘showing what you know’? Are they doing things wrong, or are they doing it in a different way to how you would?

Ask don’t tell.  Before giving your opinion, why not ask your mentee or colleague how things went/how things are going, and what they think? For example, “Well done on getting [X] done/drafted, how did it go? Are you happy with it? Did you find it straightforward? Was there anything more taxing/complicated you had to deal with? Is there anything further you’d like to improve about it? Do you have any questions about it?”

Let go of values-based judgements. If a colleague or mentee’s work contains typos or mistakes, or is otherwise not up to your own standard, it’s not very likely that mistakes were made in order to directly offend you, or as a mark of disrespect. Consider whether you were clear about the standards you expect? If you’re feeling angry, what are you really angry about? What does the anger relate to? Who are you angry with? How are your anger levels generally? It may be that this perceived slight, or lack of care, is a further irritant in a relationship that’s already not working well. Address the cause, not the symptom.

Reject passive aggressive responses, for example ‘hinting’.  Good feedback is built on open and honest conversations. Say what you mean and mean what you say – take a look at this article on how to spot passive aggressive behaviour. If you need to practice getting out of passive aggressive habits, and communicate more honestly, imagine your response will be publicly available – does that change how you will reply?

Be culturally aware.  Here’s an article helping you think through your communication habits if you are working with people from different organisational and educational cultures, and diverse nationalities. The ‘British culture translation’ guide might make you smile. It has an application broader than EU translation and works both ways too.

Check the power privilege.  What might seem flippant, harmless or even funny between peers who know each other well, may come across as threatening to people who we are leading, managing or mentoring. This can be exacerbated if they are new to the task or workplace, are feeling a bit overwhelmed with workload, are on a steep learning curve, or are otherwise a feeling insecure about the work or performance they are getting feedback on.

Know what workplace bullying looks like. Keep an eye on yourself and others around you. Although I know I don’t need to preach to readers of this post about not using bullying as a feedback technique, there are those who feel they can get away with writing off their bullying behaviour as ‘just normal critical appraisal’. Check these guides to find out what bullying at work looks like - have you seen any of these? – I have definitely seen most of them in my time working in and with different universities. Rudeness and undermining behaviour isn’t just unpleasant in itself, it reduces motivation, engagement with and ownership of work, physical and mental health (see this study on workplace rudeness), and ultimately leads to isolation, low productivity, and delay.

Be specific about what you want to see. Have a little laugh at this comedic example of poor feedback. And if you find you’re giving feedback like this, why not just do it better? Define what ‘good’ looks like through your feedback, for example on the elements and style of scholarly writing.

Criticise with kindness.“Let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent. So you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.” – Arthur Martine.  Follow rules 1, 2, and 3 of intelligent critical commentary before offering your rebuttal. It transforms your opponent into a more receptive audience for your feedback, which in turn helps advance the discussion.

Use higher logical forms of disagreement. If you want to disagree, no problem. Just keep it about the subject of the disagreement, and keep away from the base of this hierarchy. Don’t troll your colleagues.

Try using ‘AND’ instead of ‘BUT’. You can easily negate good will by adding a ‘but’ after a positive statement. Try using ‘and’ instead. “You’re doing a great job already, and if you tried out one or two of these ideas, you could really become a connoisseur of feedback”. Remember that saying ‘however’ is just a fancy way of saying ‘but’. And saying ‘on the other hand’ is just a metaphorical way of saying ‘but’.

Try using ‘WHAT’ instead of ‘WHY’. Asking ‘why’ can (a) provoke defensiveness and make people feel the need to justify themselves with long winded accounts of everything they have on their plate right now, for example “Why didn’t you manage to get that done?” and (b) asking ‘why’ can send people spiralling backwards into the history of similar times they were stuck or frustrated and encourage self-blame. To keep ears open and minds solution-focused, it’s better to ask, “What prevented you from getting that done?” Because if we can define the ‘what’, we can plan around the ‘what’, and solve the problem.

Not shirk the difficult conversation. Sometimes we all have to speak an honest truth about someone’s habits, style or behaviour at work, and the impact it has on us. Things don’t get better on their own. Whatever difficult thing you have to say to your colleague(s), planning your conversation will help you clarify and articulate your thoughts and your approach. Download a difficult conversation planning tool I made here

As always, if these ideas are useful, then please use them, adapt them and share them as you wish. If they are not useful, no worries. Remember that you don’t have to do all of the above, choose the right things for you. If you do try out some of these ideas, your feedback is always welcome.

By Dr Kay Guccione, Head of Researcher Development at the University of Glasgow, and FLF+ Network Mentoring Specialist.

This blog is part of a series written for our FLF+ Network Leadership Mentors, and is provided open access so that it can be used by anyone who is interested in improving how they ask coaching questions. I draw my examples in this post from across the different mentoring programmes I’ve worked on, but you will recognise that these ideas also apply to personal tutoring, doctoral and masters supervision too, as well as to line management.

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I have been enjoying working with a range of different new mentors, on various schemes, in recent weeks. Part of their orientation to mentoring practice is introducing them to a facilitative coaching style and, as I wrote about in my earlier blog post, a ‘repertoire beyond advice’. This enables them to work with a diverse range of mentees, with a range of career backgrounds and development goals. It also allows them to bring a depth to their practice beyond a superficial advisory role.

New mentors who are trying on the coaching style and trying to avoid giving advice as a default option, often ask me what coaching questions they should ask their mentees. I could define ‘a good question’ in many ways from ‘non-incendiary’, to natural sounding, to incisive, to transformational, but what I understand these novice mentors to mean is ‘what is a helpful coaching question?’. Meaning, what could they ask, that will help their mentee to reflect and learn?

Coaching and mentoring disciplines stem from a learner-centred educational philosophy which aims to develop learner autonomy and independence by putting responsibility for the learning path and decisions, into the mentee’s hands. What this looks like in practice is the mentor sitting back and allowing the mentee to drive the conversation, supporting them to reflect deeply, to think creatively and ultimately to choose their own way forward. It won’t surprise you then that my answer is that a good question to ask is the question that works for that person, at that time. However, all irritating hedging aside, I offer some general guidance below on constructing great coaching questions, with examples.

Setting the ground rules.  It’s still worth beginning by setting some focus for the coaching conversation, for example asking “How do you want to use the time together?”“What are you hoping this conversation will bring?” or “What specifically do you need from me today?”  Even brief ad hoc coaching conversations can have an impact, but this only happens if both parties are clear about the purpose the discussion.

Start at the beginning and take it from there.  For some mentees a simple “How are you?”  or ”How have you been getting along?” will set them off on a long and reflective retelling of recent experiences. It’s OK to keep them talking. Don’t feel that you have to interrupt with a question to be more ‘coach like’. Listen, and take in what they are saying, and ask clarifying questions as needed.

Keep questions ‘open’.  An open question is one that invites your mentee or coachee to give a considered answer, recount an event, or think out loud, in some way processing their experiences and making sense of them. It’s usually a question which doesn’t have a simple answer but requires some contemplation and evaluation of the matters at hand. As such, open questions spark reflection, and help them bring implicit thoughts or thought processes out into the open. Often, what mentees need is for you as the mentor to open the conversation, and they’ll talk it all out.

Keep the conversation flowing.  For others, perhaps mentees who are more skilled at mastering their own thoughts internally, more naturally reserved, or those who are more nervous or who are feeling a bit upset, “How are you?” will elicit the short response of “Fine.” and you will have to think again about how to open up the conversation. My own favourite choice in this situation is a question along the lines of “What have you enjoyed in your work recently?” or ”What have you had on your plate the last couple of weeks?”. You can keep the conversation rolling by using a drawing, mapping or other visual approach and this is particularly effective if stress or frustration make it difficult for your partner to convey their feelings in words. Coaching side-by-side, for example working together at a whiteboard, or going for a walk together or separately whilst chatting on the phone, can also reduce feelings of confrontation or embarrassment for your mentee, and allow them to talk more freely. Make sure your mentee knows you are not asking them a question for which they need to produce the ‘right answer’ this can help them to overcome a fear of saying the wrong thing, and so be willing to speculate out loud.

Let silence be.  All mentors have to practice feeling comfortable with allowing silence to be a regular part of the conversation. Silence between you may sometimes signal that it’s your turn to move the discussion forward (as in the example above). But often it will indicate that your mentee has had an idea, is thinking about a new insight, or is considering how best to phrase what they want to say. You can help them best in this case by waiting, or by using ”Keep going”, ”Go on”, or ”Say more about that’,  to encourage them to stay with the thought and follow it to its conclusion. It can take time to marshal a web of ideas in one’s head into a linear sentence. Don’t butt in on that thought process.

Beyond the conversation: supporting action and accountability.  I consider it an essential component of my own mentoring practice, to ask mentees at the end of the dialogue: ”What action(s) are you committing to, before our next session?” This helps translate ideas into reality and makes action more likely. This is because it gives your mentee impetus to identify the time and resources to complete the task they have set for themselves, and the deadline by which they want to have taken action. Further accountability can be encouraged by enquiring about the consequences of inaction, for example “What will happen if you don’t do this task?” and from a mentoring partnership perspective “What do you want me to say to you next time we meet if you don’t do this task?”

Questions for mentors to field test

Below is a list of generally applicable, or adaptable, questions for your consideration and tailoring. This is a menu of questions from which you can select those that appeal to you, rather than a structured process model. Feel free to try them out, and to adjust the language to suit your style.

  • What exciting things have you been doing since our last meeting?
  • What have you been able to make progress on since our last meeting?
  • What’s working well for you?
  • Are there any unknowns you have right now that are blocking you?
  • What’s on your to do list that you’re avoiding?
  • What would make it easier to tackle that thing?
  • What’s the first thing you’re going to do towards [objective] after this meeting?
  • When do you need to do it by?
  • Who could support you to succeed with this?
  • What does achieving [objective] mean for your progress?
  • What are your hopes for how [objective] will turn out?
  • What could arise to prevent [objective] from happening?
  • What’s the most important thing you need to get done at this point?
  • What’s on the horizon that you know you need to think about now?
  • What is pulling your attention, is that something you need to do right now?
  • What fun things have you done this month?
  • What do you find enjoyable about this work?
  • What’s prevented you from taking action on [objective]?
  • What would make it more likely you will take action on [objective]?
  • What [time/people/support] resources do you have that you’re not making best use of?
  • What are you doing that’s stopping you from being at your best?
  • What might you try instead? What else? And what else?
  • What can you do today that gets you one step closer to that [idea/aim/objective]?

The important thing about developing coaching questions as part of your mentoring repertoire, is to reflect on the approach you take, and the type of responses that your questions elicit from your mentee or coachee. Notice the effect you have on your partner’s thinking, and combine this with their feedback, to really understand what makes for an effective question.

By Dr Kay Guccione, Head of Researcher Development at the University of Glasgow, and FLF+ Network Mentoring Specialist.

This blog is part of a series written for our FLF+ Network Leadership Mentors, and is provided open access so that it can be used by anyone who is interested in improving their listening skills. I draw my examples in this post from across the different mentoring programmes I’ve worked on, but you will recognise that these ideas also apply to personal tutoring, doctoral and masters supervision too, as well as to line management.

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Are you really listening, or are you thinking how to reply?

A common expectation for mentees is that they’ll be able to get answers to their questions by asking their mentor. Not a terrible assumption. A good mentoring partnership though, if fulfilling more than the bare minimum transaction, should not come across like a Q&A session where the mentor supplies the answer to the mentees queries.

You may have noticed that your mentees (or whomever you’re working to support or develop), will often come along to meet you for the first time, and adopt this model: either coming with a list of questions for you to answer, or none at all, but sitting down attentively to hear your oration about ‘what they should do.’

This is antithetic to the idea of mentoring as person-centred learning, as it makes the conversation all about you, the mentor; your advice, your wisdom, your opinion. The short time you have together is filled with tales of your experience, and any actions coming out of the meeting are then yours to own.

It’d be preposterous to say there should be no advice given, or stories shared, there’s a right time and place for advice within your mentoring practice. A good mentoring partnership offers more than that though. I wrote more here about the pros and cons of giving advice if you’re interested to know more.

The idea I want to focus on in this post is the idea of the role you can play as a ‘sounding board’. A sounding board is an acoustic device that is put in place to ensure the speaker’s voice is heard and as a metaphorical sounding board, you act as a listener who amplifies the learner’s voice, not your own. By listening to understand, not to reply, you support the mentee to think out loud, to externalise their thoughts, in order to support a sense-making process: This helps them to:

(1) articulate what they have experienced, how they have reacted to it, what they understand about it and what they learned form it; and then (2) to decide how to proceed and move forward.

Many of us often need to get complex intertwined thoughts out of our heads (and their associated feelings, off our chests) in order to make sense of our experiences. Once we have the chance to talk it out, and hear what we have said, we can start to understand what we think. The ‘giving advice’ model skips step 1, the important sense-making step, and offers a way forward that’s not based in the learner’s experience and preferences, but in yours.

Additionally, being listened to and getting things of our chest gives us emotional relief. Not being listened to because the mentor-is-talking-now, or being constantly interrupted with well-meaning advice, anecdotes, or related topics, does the opposite. It can be experienced as frustrating, invalidating, and disempowering, and perhaps ultimately as a waste of time.

Real listening also means you will retain more of what your mentee, (or colleague, student or team member) is telling you. Meaning that the frustration of repeated conversations or ‘I told you this last time’ can be avoided. Retaining information about people and their work helps you to make connections when opportunities arise. It also supports understanding and therefore trust building between you both, and makes for great working partnerships.

Listening to reply  is how we converse most of the time. Instead of actually paying attention to and really hearing what the other person is saying to us, we are inside our own head, thinking about what we want to say in response, that might help them.

When I teach workshops on the principles and practices of mentoring conversations, I give participants a practice run of just 10 min where I ask them to keep the mentee talking, and avoid jumping in, even if that means long pauses or awkward silences. I then ask the conversational partners how it went, and we unpick the impact of that act, on the quality of the conversation. Mentors will tend to feed back that they experienced the exercise as ‘hard work’ because it’s an ‘unfamiliar’ way of working. And that’s OK, practice makes perfect.

But let’s listen to the mentees, look what they say about the opportunity to sound out their thoughts in an uninterrupted way [data shared with the mentee’s consent]:

“When I got a chance to talk it out and vocalise the ludicrous situation I was in, I had to put all my jumbled thoughts into a coherent sentence, that means that I had to make it make sense as a story instead of, you know, turning it over and over in my mind, going back and forth over bits of the issue in my head. So, like, then I thought about what the story I was telling actually was, and it meant I came to understand what my own role in that story was, and it all became a lot clearer that what I need to do is go back to my colleague X, who I’m feeling weird about. The one that I had the, er, awkward conversation with. I have to do now, what I wanted the person in my story to do, it’s the obvious thing to do, so, and when I laid it all out clearly it was very obvious.”

“When I got to the end of describing the problem I’m having with the new module, I felt like I’d already made up my mind about what I could do, I talked round in a circle and through sorting the facts I became very determined all of a sudden to do that thing, I went right off to do it. All my mentor said, was things to reassure me, like ‘oh that makes sense to me’. What I was saying wasn’t nonsense, and my choice about what to do about it also made sense.”

“It turned out, when I got to really going into detail, not to be one issue but three different things that need sorting out. Now I’ve separated them. It’s funny because I came here saying I wanted to get advice, but when it looked like my mentor was going to give me some advice, I was like, hang on through, I need to finish this thought, because I think I just had an idea. I want to get that out before I hear the one you’re going to say. I didn’t want my thought to be interrupted cos I was on a roll. My mentor’s cool and did a great job but he can’t possibly, well, get to grips with how complicated this is for me, and how much it’s ground me down We only had just a 10 min chat so not his fault that he couldn’t get the complexity of the situation.”

‘Listening to understand’ and to support your mentee to understand what they think and feel, is a practice, and it takes practice. Your role is not to hear the question and then to provide the solution. Instead focus on keeping your mentees thinking and processing their thoughts through talking. Keep them talking until you start to understand their perspective. Your key mentor tools here are ‘summary’ and ‘paraphrase’ — different ways of reflecting back what your mentee has said to you. Summary, is to summarise in their own words. Paraphrase, is to give a short recap using your own phrasing of the situation. Either way you are reflecting their experience back to them, not jumping straight in with your own.

Listen past the words too; when they discuss their work, listen for excitement, be sensitive to their energy levels, and notice what they are not excited or energetic about. Offer an observation to keep them thinking and talking e.g. “When you talk about X you get really enthusiastic, is that right?” or “I notice that when you talk about Y your head went down, what’s happening there?” 

By thinking carefully about whether we are really listening, how we listen, and what the impact of our listening is, we can start to develop new skills in developing others. Try this out in your next mentoring meeting, supervision, or staff one-to-one.

By Dr Kay Guccione, Head of Researcher Development at the University of Glasgow, and FLF+ Network Mentoring Specialist.

Building a ‘repertoire beyond advice’This blog is part of a series written for our FLF+ Network Leadership Mentors, and is provided open access so that it can be used by anyone who is interested in improving how they mentor others.

My work in mentoring, and mentor development naturally covers ‘training’ in good mentoring practice. Actually, I prefer to say mentor ‘development’, because ‘training’ is too didactic a notion to be a good way of describing how I support new mentors to get to grips with the practices involved. Mentoring is in itself a facilitative, non-directive activity which I aim to teach by example, and through offering mentors choice about what they want to include in their toolkit. Structuring and delivering good quality developmental conversations for your mentee is a personal practice as well as a professional practice.

As with all types of leadership practice, there’s not a ‘right way’ to do mentoring, each mentor chooses their own approach, style and practices, and chooses how and when to apply them in different partnerships, situations and contexts. However, there are certain frameworks into which we fit these practice choices, and the framework for good practice in mentoring, is that we avoid ‘telling’ ‘instructing’ and ‘giving advice’ whenever there’s a better way to support our mentee to develop.

That said, advice can be great. Giving advice is almost always intended as a helpful behaviour, done with the best of intentions to support our mentees, colleagues, friends, and families, who present us with a problem. But is our advice always received as intended? It’s likely not, we have all witnessed the frustrations that unsolicited advice can provoke.

When we think of a mentoring session, it’s common to think of two people who sit down together, do some talking, and as a result of this conversation the more junior ‘mentee’ gets some advice, information or tips from the more senior ‘mentor’, and ‘is developed’. However, the idea that mentoring is equal to advising, can lead us to a superficial view of what mentoring involves. Using advice as a way to solve every problem, can be based in assumptions about what the aim of mentoring is, and what the mentee wants to get out of the conversation. Take this oversimplified mentoring process for example:

  1. mentee has a problem based on a knowledge gap,
  2. mentor uses their superior knowledge to solve the problem, by giving some advice,
  3. mentee’s problem is solved because they now possess that knowledge…

But does it always work like that? Are all problems just caused by a simple knowledge gap and fixed by knowing the right answer?

Are mentoring problems always solved with the right advice?

First, let’s ask, are mentoring conversations always about problems? Engaging with mentoring is not just ‘for problems’, but can be even more effective if it’s viewed as a proactive development activity ‘for planning’. Positioning the value of mentoring as an aide to planning, prevents mentoring becoming a reactive rollercoaster of just in time problem solving. And also prevents wasted opportunities, where the mentee says at the end of the programme “I didn’t get in touch with my mentor because a problem never came up.”

Where problems do occur, think also that it’s not very empowering to have to have someone solve your problem for you. In leaping in to solve the issue, we deny the mentee the chance to develop their own problem-solving skills. We undermine their own authority to be in control of their way forward.

And say there is a particular problem the mentee wants to solve, but there isn’t a simple ‘right answer’ to the problem? What if the mentor has no prior experience of the issue? What if the mentor’s advice comes from a different set of experiences and assumptions about how the world works? What if the mentor’s knowledge is out of date, or only applies in certain contexts? Their advice in any of these situations is likely to fall short of the intended mark, and to frustrate the mentee.

Importantly what if the ‘problem’ is not a knowledge gap at all, but a confidence gap, or a motivation gap, or a permission gap or something more complex like how to improve a challenging workplace relationship. These are things that the mentor can’t just ‘hand over’ to the mentee, and so we have to think differently about how to help.

Developing a ‘repertoire beyond advice’ is a must have for a good mentor.

So as mentors we try to resist jumping straight into advice-giving mode, and instead we listen in order to support our mentee to reflect and articulate the issues they face. We amplify their voice, help them think out loud, hear what they have to say, and make sense of their situation. We use coaching questions to prompt the mentee to think out loud, dig deeper, and self-evaluate. Developing a facilitative coaching approach means you can be helpful even if you’ve never experienced what your mentee needs to tackle, and it means you can help them learn how to problem solve for themselves, handing over control, and building confidence and empowerment.

Back in 2017 I ran focus groups with some experienced academic mentors, asking them, “In your experience what are the pros and cons of giving advice to your mentees?”

Here’s what they said…

(+) Pros of giving advice:

  • It’s quicker just to tell someone the answer, or tell them what to do.
  • You may go through all their own suggestions and they still end up taking your advice so it can feel a waste of time.
  • It shows someone you can relate to what they are experiencing.
  • It lets you as the mentor know that you have been helpful. It’s much easier to track whether you have done a good job if you had something tangible to hand over to the mentee.
  • It makes your mentee feel grateful to you, and value your time and wisdom.
  • If your mentee is stuck, it can unstick them, even if they reject it, they have to articulate why, it can get their creativity going again.
  • A mentee might expect advice and if they don’t get it they feel disappointed.*
  • Your suggestion might be insightful. It might be something outside your mentee’s awareness, or a genuine blind spot, or something totally new to them.
  • Your suggestion might stop your mentee from making a serious mistake, wasting their time or getting into a difficult situation.

(—) Cons of giving advice:

  • We don’t know as much about our mentee as they themselves do. We may make a diagnosis about what they need or should do based on very limited information.
  • Listening to your suggestion halts their thinking process. Thinking out loud is very powerful and you interrupt that process when you suggest a solution.
  • It creates a dependency-like relationship. If you solve a problem for them they come back to you next time there’s a new problem.
  • It’s disempowering to a person if you always know more than them, or always want to ‘one up’ their ideas.
  • A mentee will prioritise your advice over trusting themselves. As a mentor, you are the senior colleague so they feel obliged to take your advice, they feel they owe it to you.
  • A mentee in a complex situation can feel relieved that you’ve made the decision, and act without evaluating whether it’s really appropriate for them or not.
  • What if the advice doesn’t work? This can lead to blame, if you suggest a way forward, you always own it, you can get the credit, or the blame.
  • A mentee can get overwhelmed with good advice and feel like they have to put it all into practice before meeting with you again. You never see them again because they never complete the list.
  • We are all just more motivated to actually follow through and carry out ideas that are our own, we’re more likely to put them into practice.

Please take time to consider the reflections above, and see if you can spot them playing out in practice the next time you give advice, or choose not to.

To conclude, coaching those you aim to support rather than advising, is another string to your mentor bow. It means you don’t have to always know the right answer, and that you are supporting your mentee to build confidence, independence, and good problem-solving skills – not just solving the problem for them.

There is still always a right time for advice, usually when there is at least a semi-right answer and the issue is more straightforward. Good advice is given with permission, so help your mentees evaluate your suggestion though rather than just accepting it. Try adding “What can you take from my suggestion that would work for you?’ to the end of your piece of advice. Remind your mentee they aren’t obliged to take your advice too, and let them choose to adapt or reject it, if it doesn’t really work for them.

I hope you now feel more enabled to choose the right supportive approach for the right situation.

Developing a dynamic and diverse mentoring programme is our goal. Our priority is to serve the needs of the FLFs and Innovators who are part of the Network. Experienced in overseeing the development of mentoring schemes, our mentoring lead, Professor Claire Gorrara, envisions a mentoring scheme that is values-led and responsive to the needs of you, the Future Leaders Fellows and Innovators, during your time on the programme.

‘Mentoring is mentee-driven and matched to mentee goals, interests, values and aspirations.’

Professor Claire Gorrara
FLF Development Network, Research Culture Academic Lead

Our first port of call to develop the mentoring scheme was to obtain your feedback on what you wanted from mentoring during the March 2021 Research Encounter.

What does mentoring mean to you?

A wordcloud generated by FLFDN attendees at Research Encounters 2021
A wordcloud generated by FLFDN attendees at Research Encounters 2021

You are a varied community of researchers working across academia and industry and, as such, provided us with insights into a range of wants and needs that are feeding into the recruitment of mentors and the mentee-mentor matching process. You have told us that you are looking for mentors who will support and challenge you, and bring new and diverse perspectives on topics that include:

  • Experience outside your current field/industry;
  • Understanding others’ aims and values;
  • International experiences and perspectives
  • Guidance on strategic and long-term goals;
  • Insight into more senior careers;
  • Confidence and assertiveness;
  • Coaching on managing relationships and difficult conversations;
  • Opportunities for professional development and career planning;
  • Encouragement and provision of a safe place to articulate challenges and concerns;
  • Reflective feedback.

If you weren’t able to join the event, there is a recording in the video library on the FLF Development Network website – log in to access the Research Encounter Day 2 recording.

We have also been doing 30-minute Drop-in Sessions, with the next being on Monday 10th May. Here, you can provide us with your feedback on what you want from a mentor. Again, please log in and visit the Mentoring Drop-Session event page on the website to register to come along.

Inspired by the information you have shared with us, we continue to develop the mentee–mentor matching criteria with a values-led approach and your requirements at the forefront.

Reaching out to colleagues and associates, we have gathered lessons learnt on the experience of being a mentee and a mentor. We are looking to best practice from mentoring schemes across the UK, some of which colleagues from the FLF Development Network have been involved in developing and delivering. We will ensure our mentoring programme is personalised and agile, based on tried-and-tested pairing models pioneered by consortium partners. We are expanding the existing mentor pool with our own extensive, global contacts and will provide orientation sessions where you will meet your mentors.

Look out for more information on the mentoring scheme in the mentoring section of the website.

If you have any queries or questions on the mentoring scheme, please contact us: mentoring@flfdevnet.com.